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Column: The silent killer

2010-07-02 08:45

Dave Fall

Regular commuters in cars on Cape Town’s M3 highway a couple of weeks ago were seriously inconvenienced. For once, thankfully, it wasn’t an accident, but rather the replacement of about 400m of armco barriers in the Wynberg Hill area. Trouble is, these so-called “life-saving barriers” can seriously maim, or even kill, unwary motorcyclists.

We should all take road safety far more seriously than we possibly already do. I’ve already mentioned within these columns that as soon as you swing your leg over a motorcycle you are seven times, more likely to have an accident than a driver might in his “tin box”. Similarly, should a motorcyclist hit an armco-type crash barrier, he/she is 15 times more likely to die than someone in a car.

Those figures haven’t been thumb-sucked out of the ether as a reader intimated. They are statistics recorded by the Institute of Advanced Motoring Trust in the UK — an organisation that is, incidentally, responsible for setting the theory questions in the South African K53 driving test.

"Not designed for bikers"

What am I driving at, I hear you say? Well, Dr Joanne Hill senior researcher with the European Road Assessment Programme (EuroRAP) says motorway crash barriers over there, along with the ones we use in this country, remain deadly to motorcyclists — and she aims to do something about it.

“In a nutshell, crash barriers as we know them, are not designed to protect bikers in any shape or form — they are designed exclusively to protect car occupants,” she said. “A car that hits the barrier is in a controlled collision designed to redirect it away from a hazard such as bridge or a tree and then slow it down over a short distance. When a motorcyclist hits the same barrier it’s the rider’s body that takes the full impact when he/she comes up against the supporting upright posts, and is probably maimed for life or even killed.”

A friend of mine, an experienced motorcyclist who held Springbok colours for motocross, was killed on the Midlands Meander in KZN some years ago. He accidentally clipped a barrier and was killed outright.

A European Federation of Motor Cycle Association report believes: “The very construction of crash barriers with their exposed sharp edges and posts, the height and profile of the guardrails, their proximity to the carriageway, could not be more damaging to bikers if they had been designed with that objective in mind.”

Real protection

What can be done about this silent killer? Well, there is a ray of hope because there are two products widely used in Europe right now called BikeGuard and Moto.Tub. These are metal rails and plastic tubes that are fitted below the existing crash barrier, offering some real protection to bikers. Perhaps a little surprisingly, France leads the way in retro-fitting these new protectors. Some positive statistics I’ve come across suggest these strategically- placed barriers have halved the number of biker deaths caused by the “conventional” type of barrier.

There is always the chance that the powers that be in South Africa could do something positive in this regard. Those that may have travelled between Durban and Pinetown will know about the extreme mists that come down at certain times of the year, making it almost impossible to proceed safely. Many, many kilometres of solar-powered cats-eyes have been affixed to the N3 to make the trip almost pleasurable.

Hill’s ongoing study remains a stark reminder that barriers can be lethal to bikers. While she identifies how they can be made more crash-friendly, it is my fervent hope that we’ll all sit up and be very aware of this silent killer.


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